Friday, December 25, 2015

Ranking the three big sports holidays

Some holidays move around on the calendar each year and others just don’t have specific marquee sporting events that always fall on that date. But there are three that always bring joy to sports fans everywhere.  Here is how I rank them.

3. Christmas: Five NBA games that always feature the best teams and the best players. It’s a tradition that’s certainly growing on me, especially with the marquee game this year being a rematch of the NBA Finals last season between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. Teams like the Lakers and Knicks seem to be staples on Christmas regardless of how good they are. Other times, teams with a star player or two underachieve and the game that team is playing in isn’t as much of a draw all of a sudden. Such is the case with the New Orleans Pelicans playing the first game on the Christmas slate this year despite having star power forward Anthony Davis to feature. At the end of the day, most of the better teams and players in the NBA are going to be playing on Christmas, so it’s certainly worth watching.

2. New Year’s: The longstanding traditions are what make the holidays great. There aren’t many better traditions in sports than college football on New Year’s Day. I don’t think it was a particularly wise move to schedule the playoff semifinal games on New Year’s Eve, as opposed last year when the games were played on New Year’s Day. Nonetheless, there’s nothing like the history that comes with New Year’s college football and I’m sure more people are interested now with the playoff being a part of the schedule. The NHL’s Winter Classic isn’t nearly as longstanding as college football on New Year’s, but it’s one of the best spectacles in all of sports.  It takes hockey back to its outdoor roots and the crowd is far larger than any other hockey game. There have been more outdoor games added to the NHL schedule since the Winter Classic began in 2008 in Buffalo as a result.

1. Thanksgiving: On this day, it’s just your duty as an American citizen to have football on while eating a big dinner with the family.  Not to mention the great high school football rivalries that are renewed around the country on Thanksgiving. It’s the same thing every year, but I love it more and more. I’ve blogged about my love for Thanksgiving before so this was really a no brainer.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Recapping a wild week in Philadelphia sports

None of Philadelphia’s professional sports teams are particularly good at the moment. Despite being in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC East, the Eagles have been a huge disappointment in 2015 as they are 5-7 with four games to go in the regular season. The Sixers are going through yet another season in their seemingly never-ending rebuilding plan during which they’ve been the subject of tons of negative media attention and very little winning. They sit at 1-22 with just over a quarter of the 2015-2016 season in the books.  The Flyers are muddling through another mediocre season that could likely wind up as the third in the last four without a playoff appearance. The Phillies went 63-99 in 2015, which was baseball’s worst record.

Yet this week in Philadelphia sports came with plenty of intrigue.  The obvious story is the return of LeSean McCoy to Philadelphia as the Eagles welcome in the Buffalo Bills to Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday.  In January, head coach Chip Kelly became the general manager of the Eagles after winning a power struggle against Howie Roseman. Of course the frenzy of moves Kelly made this past spring is well known by now and with a 5-7 team to show for it, the third-year coach has been under plenty of scrutiny this season.  Arguably the most perplexing of all the moves Kelly made was the decision to trade McCoy to the Bills for linebacker Kiko Alonso. While Kelly points to McCoy’s high cap figure as a reason for the move, the Eagles have a lot of money tied up in the running back position in 2015 anyway.  DeMarco Murray signed a five-year, 40-million dollar contract weeks after McCoy was traded. Around the same time Murray signed, the Eagles agreed to terms on a three-year, 11-million dollar deal with former San Diego Chargers’ running back Ryan Mathews.

                                                     David Maialetti/
Culture was the buzzword behind Kelly’s offseason and it’s obvious when looking at the money put towards other running backs that McCoy did not fit into Kelly’s culture. When the Eagles returned to practice this week after an upset win in New England last Sunday, the questions about McCoy’s return were at the forefront of Kelly’s press conferences.  Often times Kelly is snarky with the media and is hesitant to admit mistakes.  But this week was different.  Kelly acknowledged he handled the departure of McCoy poorly and said he would like to shake McCoy’s hand on Sunday. But, the feeling wasn’t mutual as McCoy made it known he wasn’t willing to exchange pleasantries Sunday afternoon.  We’ll see whose team comes out on top Sunday, but this certainly isn’t just another week for Kelly or for McCoy.

Murray, one the team’s current running backs, was also in headlines this week after speaking to owner Jeffrey Lurie on the plane ride back Sunday night about his role in the offense.  The former Cowboy had just eight carries in the Eagles victory against the Patriots Sunday and rumors began to swirl about Murray’s future with the team.

The Sixers “process” as it’s commonly referred also warranted attention this week.  On Monday, the organization held a press conference announcing the hiring of Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations. Colangelo worked previously as the general manager of the Phoenix Suns and as the director of USA Basketball.  Colangelo is a highly regarded basketball executive and one who is respected in NBA circles nationwide.  So the speculation then arose about the future of general manager Sam Hinkie. Hinkie was often at the center of the aforementioned negative press regarding the Sixers in the last two years.  Is Hinkie being pushed out the door? Or maybe this was just a move to better the public perception of the Sixers as the “process” is accelerated and the Sixers begin seriously looking into free agency to add to their roster. Time will tell, but Colangelo is 76 years old and still resides in Phoenix so I tend to lean towards the latter.

                                             Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports
From left to right, Hinkie, owner Joshua Harris and Colangelo
and Monday's introductory press conference for Colangelo.
Today, the Sixers announced a two-year contract extension for head coach Brett Brown. Brown was an understudy to Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and was hired as the head coach of the Sixers in August of 2013. Brown has endured lots of losing with very few NBA caliber players on the roster. The Sixers rebuild has been slowed by Joel Embiid’s foot injury and waiting on Dario Saric to come stateside.  With all that in mind, it is really hard to pass any kind of judgment regarding Brown’s coaching ability but for most of the games during this rebuild, Brown has the Sixers playing tough and gritty basketball. They’ve been right in the thick of a lot of games, but at the end of the day, they just haven’t been a good enough team.

Then there are the Phillies. This week, new general manager Matt Klentak sent closer Ken Giles to Houston for a four-player return from the Astros. It was another of a series of trades the Phillies have made over the last 12 months to restock the farm system and get younger. The Phillies are almost certain to struggle again in 2016, but the transformation of the franchise is finally beginning to take shape after struggling through the 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons while being unwilling to commit to a rebuild.

The Flyers season has continued without much news off the ice, but on the ice the team is playing some of its best hockey of the season. A 4-2 win last night in St. Louis was their fourth straight road win. The Flyers are now 5-1-1 in their last seven and are over .500 for the season at 12-11-6.  Perhaps it’s just a tease and the team is going to revert back to being an average hockey team. But recently, they’ve looked good. Even if this season doesn’t yield a playoff berth, the commitment to developing players in junior hockey and the AHL from general manager Ron Hextall is a refreshing change from Paul Holmgren’s ultra-aggressive approach every season.

Who knows when things will turn around in Philadelphia? But this week has certainly been filled with plenty to talk about.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Food, family and football

I don’t know what year it happened but there’s not much of a doubt in my mind anymore. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  Once I outgrew the feeling of excitement that came with waking up and opening Christmas presents, it became apparent. You cannot outgrow Thanksgiving.

There is nothing like Thanksgiving dinner.  My personal favorites are stuffing, cranberry sauce and of course turkey. I was never wild about dessert but if someone makes a cherry pie, I’ll eat it. Taking in a great meal with many family members and watching football will never get old.  On Sundays during the NFL season, sometimes I feel spoiled sitting and just watching football and not doing much else with my day. But on Thanksgiving, I get to do this, eat a ton and enjoy the company of my family. All of it is okay on this day.

I’m lucky enough to still have all four of my grandparents still alive. I have an aunt, uncle and two cousins that live only an hour away. I have an older sister in graduate school and a younger brother in college just like I am. Everyone congregates somewhere and recently it’s been my house in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I’m sure this is no different than many other Thanksgiving celebrations across the country, but it doesn’t have to be different to be enjoyable. I’ve grown to respect the tradition of Thanksgiving. It doesn’t have to change to get better. I don’t want it to change because as long as it stays the same I’ll always enjoy it for what it is.

I never particularly cared for the Thanksgiving Day parades. My family has had a dog for 10 years so the National Dog Show is pretty much a staple in the living room after the parades. It’s all part of our thing. Being in college, there aren’t as many moments like this anymore. Certainly the other holidays are separate moments, but in my opinion, Thanksgiving is the one that has changed the least.

The older I’ve gotten, the less I need to be crossing my fingers for that big holiday gift. I don’t need the surprise of what’s under the Christmas tree or in my Easter basket.  Now, I just enjoy the value of a long-lasting tradition like Thanksgiving. In many ways, it’s kind of like my annual trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame for induction weekend. There’s almost nothing different each year, with the exception of a few additions or subtractions to the group of people on the trip, but there’s a beauty in doing the same thing over and over again, and not changing anything. That’s what Thanksgiving has become for me, and I love every second of it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A weekly exercise in futility

We’re hitting the stretch run of the college football regular season. Teams are vying for berths in conference championship games and eventually the College Football Playoff. Every Tuesday, we get a glimpse of what things might look like come playoff time as the new rankings are released from the committee. The first set of rankings came out last week and the latest set will be made public tonight.

Last year, I blogged about how I felt eight teams was the answer for college football. I still believe that to be true. This year, I find myself getting so annoyed by these weekly discussions of who’s in and who’s out when there are still huge games left to be played. Last week, LSU and Alabama were both in the top four with a showdown in Tuscaloosa looming later in the week.  So it was pointless to discuss if both teams were going to be in the playoff, because one was inevitably going to be knocked out. Now, Alabama is in the driver’s seat in the SEC West and it will be almost impossible for LSU to make the College Football Playoff given the Tigers likely won’t even be playing in their conference championship game.

While these rankings strike up conversations each week, it’s ultimately a bunch of nonsense. The real conversation didn’t come until the first weekend of December. It was a forgone conclusion that Alabama, Oregon and Florida State were going to be in the first ever playoff. But the fourth spot was very much up for grabs. TCU entered the final week third in the playoff rankings, ahead of Baylor and Ohio State despite losing to Baylor in the regular season.  Baylor had an unconvincing 38-27 win against Kansas State. TCU and Ohio State both had blowout victories over Iowa State and Wisconsin respectively. Iowa State went 2-10 last year and Wisconsin was 11-3. The committee gave the final spot to Ohio State for beating a better team than the team TCU beat. I disagreed with this. TCU took care of its business and left no doubt in the process but was left out. Being third in playoff ranks before the season’s final weekend was essentially pointless. You know how things ended by know. Ohio State stayed hot, beating Alabama and Oregon en route to a championship.

In last week’s first release of the playoff rankings for 2015, there was an emphasis placed on strength of schedule. Undefeated teams Baylor, Michigan State, TCU and Iowa were behind one-loss Alabama and Notre Dame. With Michigan State and TCU losing over the weekend, there’s no longer a case for those teams to be higher in the rankings. LSU will likely drop out of the top four and Notre Dame will slide in. That will leave the top four at Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame. It’s not rocket science to say those are the best four teams in the nation right now. But what does that mean? Alabama will still have to beat Florida in the SEC Championship game. Ohio State still has to go through Michigan State and potentially Iowa in the Big 10 Championship game. Notre Dame has to travel to Stanford, another team on the outside looking in of the playoff picture. There is plenty of football left. This is where it really gets interesting. So who cares about the top four teams are in the playoff rankings right now? I certainly don’t.

Monday, October 26, 2015

World Series Preview

Another baseball season is coming to an end. Here is my breakdown of this year’s World Series between the New York Mets and the Kansas City Royals.

Hitting: Kansas City was unquestionably the stronger offensive team in the  regular season. The Royals had the third highest team batting average in the majors at .269. The Mets were 28th in batting in the regular season.  Kansas City finished seventh in runs scored while the Mets were 17th. But none of that really matters right now. In the playoffs, it’s all about timely hitting and the Mets have been getting plenty of that particularly from second baseman Daniel Murphy and the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline gave the Mets lineup some much needed pop in the lineup.  However, the Royals have been equally as capapable offensively in the postseason as they were in the regular season having scored 63 runs in 11 postseason games and hitting .271 collecitvely in the playoffs.  With Kansas City, there may not be that one imposing bat, but if you include last postseason, whether it’s Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, or really anyone in the lineup, many players are capable of getting a clutch hit.

Advantage: Royals

Pitching: This might seem obvious. But it’s not. Yes, Jacob DeGrom, Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard have been terrific for New York. Steven Matz has been more than adequate as a four man in the postseason.  Jeurys Familia is perfect on five save opportunities thus far in October. The one weakness for the Mets when it comes to pitching is their middle relief but with the starters going at least six innings seemingly every night, they’ve been able to get away with it, and I wouldn’t expect that to change now. But, the Roylas pitchers are capable of matching the Mets starters pitch for pitch.  Edinson Volquez proved his worth in the opening game of the ALCS against a lethal Toronto lineup. Johnny Cueto has won two of his three postseason starts and was the Royals primary target at the trade deadline for this very reason.  Yordano Ventura has won all three of his postseason starts and has not allowed more than three runs in the process. Wade Davis has filled in admirably as the closer since Greg Holland was lost  for the season. This is closer than you think.

Advantage: Mets

Intagibles: The Mets have been playing with house money this offseason and we’ve seen where that’s gotten them.  In a sense, New York’s run to the Fall Classic is similar to Kansas City’s last year. The Royals weren’t expected to contend for a championship last season, much less a playoff spot, won a crazy wild card game against Oakland and took off them there all the way to game seven of the World Series where they ran into Madison Bumgarner. Most experts took the Washington Nationals in the NL East this year and many believed the Nationals could be the team representating the National League in the World Series. Yet, here are the Mets, four wins away from their third World Series title in  franchise history and first in 29 years.  For once, there are expectations for Kansas City. The Royals nearly bowed out in the ALDS as Houston blew a four-run lead in the eighth inning up two games to one on the defending American League champions.  Can the Royals prove to just be the better team the way they did in the ALCS against Toronto or will the Mets run of destiny continue? The ladder seems more likely.

Advantage: Mets

Prediction: Mets in 6

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Ranting on a Major League Baseball injustice

The postseason “begins” tonight in Major League Baseball.  You’ll notice I put begins in quotation marks. The New York Yankees host the Houston Astros in the American League Wild Card game. Tomorrow night the Pittsburgh Pirates host the Chicago Cubs in the National League Wild Card game. In 2012, Major League Baseball began using two wild cards in the postseason and having a one-game round between the two wild cards for the right to advance to the division series.

If you ask me, this is one of the worst rules in sports. The playoffs, as I know them in Major League Baseball, are four teams in each league. There are three division winners and a wild card. It’s one thing to play 162 games and finish tied with another team. Then you play a tiebreaker. This wild card game has created a one-game playoff scenario that breaks ties that never existed.

The New York Yankees played the entire season and finished one game better than the Houston Astros. Before 2012, that would have had the Yankees in the postseason and the Astros home watching. Now, you might as well forget that the previous 162 games even happened because all that matters is one game. The only thing the Yankees won by having a better record than the Houston Astros was home field advantage for one game, which in baseball doesn’t mean much.

There is a reason why in baseball, more so than other professional sports, teams celebrate clinching playoff berths. It’s a big deal. After all 30 teams play 162 games, if your team is one that gets to play well into October when two-thirds of the league is sent home, it’s worth celebrating over. But in cases like the Yankees and Pirates? Despite being the two teams that traditionally would have been baseball’s only wild cards, now all it means is a chance to play one extra game.

On top of that, both the Yankees and Pirates may be up against the respective Cy Young winners in their leagues. Tonight, the Yankees face 20-game winner Dallas Keuchel of Houston. While the AL Cy Young winner could very well wind up being Toronto’s David Price, Keuchel had a season that will get him recognized and shouldn’t finish behind any other pitcher besides Price in the voting. The Pirates face baseball’s hottest pitcher in Chicago’s Jake Arietta who seems to have the upper hand on the Los Angeles Dodgers duo of Zack Grienke and Clayton Kershaw in the NL Cy Young race.

While proponents of the second wild card will point to the San Francisco Giants from last year as the second wild card in the National League to win their third World Series title in five seasons, it’s not adding up for me. In one game in baseball, any team can beat any other team. So for a team to fight all season to earn baseball’s first wild card only to be rewarded with home field advantage in a one game scenario isn’t enough for me. It’s easy for me to say just go back to the old way where there is only one wild card. I would be fine with that.

But my scenario, which could appease both sides to this issue, would be to play a best-of-three series in which the first wild card hosts all three games. It would be like any other three-game series in the regular season where all the games are played at the same location. That, to me, would be an ample reward for the first wild card team and allow for a second wild card. The second wild card should have to win two games on the road, not just steal one and then get to go home and close the series out. So Rob Manfred, in case you’re reading this, that’s my proposal. For Yankee fans and Pirate fans, if your seasons end tonight and tomorrow night, I’m sorry.